Queen Maya dreamt that a white elephant with six white tusks entered her right side and 10 months later Siddhartha was born. Siddhartha’s mother died a few days later.
Two thousand and five hundred years after this, Siddhartha drew his mother’s sketch on the floor of an Iraqi orphanage and slept on her arm.
No elephant with white tusks was there to protect him.
“See this,” Jassim Taqwi put a picture on the table as Rashid Khan pulled hookah at the Springfield Shisha Bar in Northern Virginia. This was Siddhartha in the orphanage.
Zalmay pushed the hookah away and hid the picture with a newspaper but the image remained with him.
“When a person dies, a new one comes into being, much as the flame of a dying candle lights the flame of another. The basic cause of this transmigration is ignorance, when ignorance is uprooted rebirth ceases,” said Siddhartha.
The little boy in the orphanage lit the candle. “How are you, my son?” her mother whispered. “I am fine, mom,” said the little boy. “You know I cannot sleep without hearing a story from you, so please tell me one.”
She did, recalling an Alif Laila tale that Iraqi mothers often told their children.
Dunyazad sat up and said: “O my sister, tell us a new story to while away the waking hours of the night.”
“With joy, my sister” answered Sheherazade, “only if this pious and auspicious King permits me.”
Although the pious King planned to behead his bride at dawn, he was pleased with the prospect of hearing a juicy story. “Go on, tell one,” he said.
Hermit Asita journeyed from his mountain abode to greet Siddhartha. When he saw all the right signs on his forehead, the sage announced that Siddhartha would either become a great king or a great holy man.
Siddhartha’s father, who was a king from a warrior caste, did not like this prediction. He knew a man of religion, no matter how holy, was not a king. He wanted a ruler for Kapilavastu, not a hermit.
“This is the story of a jinni who wanted to slay a merchant,” the mother whispered to the little boy in the Iraqi orphanage.
“Not this, mom,” said the boy, “you know the jinn scare me.”
“But these are scary days, my son,” said the mom. “I see no humans, only jinn and ifrits. Be brave, for this is our story. It cannot be different. I need to teach you how to tackle the jinni.”
The story moved to October 2001, a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York. A mother in a New York suburb was telling a similar story to her son, of good guys and bad guys.
His father was a fire fighter who died while trying to save those trapped in the twin towers.
“When you grow up, you have to fight the bad guys,” said the mother.
“When the merchant ate the dates, he threw away the stones with force. Lo and behold, a jinni appeared, huge and ferocious, holding a drawn sword,” said the mother to her son in the Iraqi orphanage. “Stand up that I may slay you as you slew my son,” the jinni said.
“And how did I slay your son, my lord,” said the merchant.
“The stones you threw choked my son and he died,” said the jinni.
But before 9/11, there was a war in Afghanistan, forcing millions of Afghan refugees to camps in Pakistan and Iran.
At one such camp near Peshawar, a mother brought her two sons, aged six and eight, to their father’s grave. “The communists killed your father. When you grow up, you have to kill them,” said the Afghan mother, giving them two AK-47 rifles that dwarfed the two kids.
When 16, Siddhartha married Yasodhara. At age 29, he saw an old man, a diseased man, a decaying corpse, and an ascetic.
Siddhartha quit his palace for the life of a mendicant. He wanted to overcome pain but left behind Yasodhara and son Rahula to suffer the pain of separation.
“If you overcome ignorance, you can end this cycle of rebirth,” said he.
“Rebirth and vengeance; are they linked?” asked Rashid, a Pakistani-American.
“How do I know? These are stories from your region. You should know them better,” said Jassim, an Iraqi-American.
“They indeed are from our region but we abandoned them long time ago,” said Rashid, telling Jassim how Taxila, the world’s first known university established by Siddhartha’s followers lay in ruins near Islamabad.
And after 9/11, there are drone attacks on villages in Pakistan’s tribal belt where terrorists hide among the villagers. The missiles kill the militants but they also kill innocent villagers.
There the jinni approaches the tribesmen, known for keeping a grudge alive for generations, and urges them to avenge the blood of the innocent.
A tribal mother takes her son to a mound of rubble, which was once their home. “The drones did this to our home. When you grow up, you have to settle this score,” she says.
But at the Springfield Shisha Bar, Rashid kept thinking about Prince Siddhartha.
Rashid always stopped before the statue of the Fasting Buddha whenever he visited the Lahore Museum, noticing that he shared a room – full of spears, swords and arrows – with warrior kings.
Rashid stopped, waiting for the full-throated laugher of the young couples who came to the museum from a nearby college. They walked pass the exhibits, looking at some with interests, ignoring others.
Like him, they too stopped before the Fasting Buddha, admiring the work of the unknown artist who made this masterpiece more than 2,000 years ago.
They admired the sinew body, weakened with fast and penitence and walked away. Still fresh on the wheel of life, they never bothered to look up for those who went before them or down for those who were following them.
When the moon rose above the Margallas in Taksashila (Taxila), the teacher reviewed his class and said: “Lord Buddha asked us to leave behind our lusts, desires and fears to free ourselves from this cycle of pain.”
The teacher too disappeared along with his students. And now an American tourist sits on the stairs of the Sirkup Stupa with his Australian girlfriend and drinks coke.
Rashid looks at the Fasting Buddha, hears the full-throated laughter of the young couples. Notices those above and behind him on the wheel of life and hears the whisper: “Soon, soon.”
A Japanese tourist says to his Pakistani companion, “I am not religious but we believe that if we put our finger on the bellybutton of a Buddha statue, our wishes are fulfilled.”
His puts his finger on the bellybutton of a statue in Sirkup, makes his wish and moves away.
Grinding wheels are placed in the corner of a room which once used to be the kitchen for students at this ancient university. It seems the students will come any moment and start preparing the evening meal.
In the Iraqi orphanage, the mother notices that the child is fast asleep, clinging to her image to fight back the jinni who wanted to slay the merchant.
She strokes her head and draws back to her unmarked grave. The flame that lights the candles keeps burning.
Nobody knows if it is the flame of hope or vengeance.
The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC